In Response to 'What Must I Do?' Editorial in the Standard Bearer

The following letter was sent to the editorial office of the Standard Bearer with the request that they publish it. The editors refused to publish the letter. I publish it here on the RFPA blog as I sent it to them. I believe these issues are of utmost importance for our churches and for the readers of the blog.

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Letter to the Standard Bearer about What must I do?

Dear Editors of the Standard Bearer,

I am writing about the most recent editorial, What must I do?, by Rev. Koole (October 1, 2018 Volume 95, Issue 1). I find the editorial deeply disturbing for the connection that it makes with doctrinal dispute in our churches, specifically the editor’s, “fear that we tend to underestimate,” the truth of irresistible grace, and the editor’s connecting this to the “issues being discussed in the PRC of late, namely, grace and godliness—the life of good works—in the life of the child of God.”

The editor’s reference is to the doctrinal dispute in the Protestant Reformed Churches over sermons preached at Hope Protestant Reformed Church. I take issue with the editor’s characterization of this as “a discussion.” Rather, there were multiple protests and appeals filed, discipline carried out, a man deposed from office, many meetings were held, many decisions were made, some decisions overturned, and the last decision was made by Synod 2018, part of which involved a formula of subscription examination of a preacher. It is hardly “a discussion.” To describe it as such is an affront to all involved.

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RFPA Update newsletter - Summer 2018

 

IN THIS ISSUE:

  • Getting books into eager hands
  • Color House Graphics Tour
  • Upcoming children's books
  • A book contest
  • Author videos
  • New publications
  • Reader feedback
  • RFPA Annual Meeting
  • Reader feedback on T is for Tree

FULL ISSUE

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RFPA Update newsletter - Spring 2018

 Click icon to read the full pdf version.

The articles in this issue are:
  • "Richly blessed by those books"
  • Keeping RFPA titles in print: Amazing Cross, Behold, He Cometh, Portraits of Faithful Saints
  • Two special Reformation Issues of the Standard Bearer
  • New Releases: Walking in the Way of Love, T is for Tree, Studies in Hebrews
  • Children's books division news
  • What are the next books being printed?: Here We Stand: Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, The Belgic Confession commentary (volume 1), Grace and Assurance: The Message of the Canons of Dordt
  • Blog news
  • Radio Interviews
  • Test your foreign language skills!
  • Book Review: Knowing God in the Last Days: Commentary on 2 Peter
  • Reader feedback

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In the Way of Repentance

The question of the necessity of good works and the proper and clear explanation of that necessity of good works can be seen in the saving work of repentance. Repentance is frequently described as the work in the way of which we enjoy covenantal fellowship with God. The language that in the way of repentance we enjoy God and the fellowship of God in the covenant is contrasted with repentance being a prerequisite, or a condition, of the covenant and the fellowship of God.

That the covenant is enjoyed in the way of repentance is accepted Reformed language to contrast the truth of the unconditional covenant of gracethat repentance is necessary while at the same time being a gift of God in the covenant and not that upon which the covenant dependsfrom the false doctrine of the conditional covenantthat repentance, even that worked by grace, is that upon which the covenant and the God of the covenant depend. It is true that this teaching of the conditional covenant teaches this along with the teaching of a universal offer of grace: God gives grace to every baptized child, and by that grace the child can repent. Thus the defenders of this position when pushed to the wall insist that the condition of repentance is fulfilled by grace. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the activity of the sinner by grace is that upon which the promise of God, the covenant of God by that promise, and ultimately the eternal salvation of the child depend. The decisive place in the covenant to obtain what the covenant promise is given to works performed by grace—repentance—and those works are instruments by which the covenant is fulfilled.

The purpose of the language that the believer enjoys the covenant of God in the way of repentance is precisely to deny this teaching. The language is intended to teach that the saving benefit of repentance belongs to the benefits of the covenant of grace and is not a condition unto the covenant of grace or to the experience of the covenant of grace. Another purpose of this language is to insist that repentance is necessary in the covenant of grace. The unconverted and unrepentant do not inherit the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this language teaches that God in the covenant so works that repentance in the sinner that the repentance is his real activity.

To describe repentance as that which is necessary in order to have fellowship with God or for covenantal fellowship with God corrupts the truth that covenantal fellowship with God is in the way of repentance. The language in order to have fellowship with God corrupts the truth by teaching that repentance is that upon which covenantal fellowship with God depends and of which covenantal fellowship with God is the end result. This language effectually makes repentance a condition of the covenant, for the experience of the covenant, and for fellowship with God in the covenant, although the word condition is not used. It is exactly this error that the language in the way of is intended to deny. The explanation of the precise meaning of the phrase in the way of, however, is often lacking.

The Reformed confessions help in understanding this language. The Reformed faith teaches in Lord’s Day 32 that good works are necessary because Christ renews his people by his Holy Spirit according to his image. The Catechism intends by this renewal to describe both the implanting of the new life of Christ Jesus in God’s work of regeneration and the fruit of regeneration in the conversion of the sinner. In God’s work of conversion the sinner becomes active. That the Catechism has conversion in view is clear when it asks in the same Lord’s Day: “Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” Further, the Catechism asks in Lord’s Day 33, “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?” The point, then, is that the renewal of the sinner issues in his conversion. Conversion is the only fruit of regeneration.

Lord’s Day 33 describes conversion as “the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.” The mortification of the old is “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.” The quickening of the new man is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to life according to the will of God in all good works.” Both of these may be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is a one-word summary for the conversion of the sinner, in which is implied not only his turning from sin, but also his whole life of holiness with God.

In the Hebrew language this is made clear by the word for repentance, which means, to turn. It describes the spiritual activity of the sinner whereby he turns from sin and turns to the living God. This spiritual activity is the fruit of God’s conversion of the sinner and ultimately of his regenerating and calling the sinner. The prophet Jeremiah makes the relationship between God’s work of converting the sinner and the sinner’s own activity of converting himself plain: “Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth” (Jer. 31:19). The sinner repents after God has turned him. The sinner smites upon his thigh in deep sorrow over his sin, after God has instructed him.

Repentance is shorthand for true conversion. True conversion summarizes the whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his people. The whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his redeemed and delivered people can be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is to turn from sin and to turn to the living God every day. Repentance consists of hating sin and living according to the will of God in all good works. Repentance is the word that summarizes the whole life of gratitude that God requires of the redeemed and delivered sinner. By this life of repentance he gives a testimony of gratitude to God for his redemption and deliverance. By this life of repentance he praises God as his God. Daily, weekly, yearly, and all his life the word of God to the redeemed and delivered believer is “Repent!”

That the life of the God-delivered and God-renewed sinner consists of repentance was Luther’s first hammer blow in his ninety-five theses against Roman Catholic false doctrine: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther taught this over against the Roman Catholic doctrine that repentance is the work of the sinner by which he merits with God. Rather, the whole life of the child of God who is redeemed and delivered is to be repentance. This necessary repentance is the work of God and the gift of his grace to the sinner. To this life the believer must be called. In this life he must be instructed. This is not because he gains anything from God by it, but because God works it in him by the Spirit and requires it of him in gratitude for his deliverance.

This repentance, being the one-word summary both of the believer’s whole life of turning from sin and turning to God to live with God in all good works, is also the necessary way of life in the covenant. Without it none shall inherit the kingdom of God. This is because those whom God redeems and delivers he also renews by the Holy Spirit. Repentance, then, describes the whole life of the child of God in the covenant of God. The Catechism says that it is turning from sin, hating and fleeing from sin, a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. What more is necessary for the life of the redeemed, justified, and renewed believer?

Repentance is also the child of God’s experience of the covenant. What deeper experience does he have of God and covenantal fellowship with God than what is described as belonging to repentance in Lord’s Day 33?

That life of repentance is rightly and properly called the necessary way of fellowship with God in the covenant, the necessary way of life in the covenant, or the necessary way of the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant. In short, the experience of fellowship with God is repentance. Or fellowship with God is in way of repentance because it consists in that activity.

This is also how Canons of Dordt 5.7 describe the restoration of the backslidden sinner: “certainly and effectually renews them to repentance.” The same article describes that renewal by its fivefold effect:

In order that they should sincerely sorrow after God over the sins committed, that they should through faith, with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator, that they should again feel God’s favor, having been reconciled, that they should through faith adore his mercies, and that henceforth they should more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

The life of repentance consists in all these things, all of which also constitute the conversion described by the Catechism. Life with God for the sinner is the life of repentance. Covenant with God is repentance. Experience of fellowship with God is repentance. This is true now and in eternity, where, though sin will be forever banished, the positive side will remain: turning to God, an eternal turning to God in perfection.

To say that repentance is the necessary way of the covenant means, first, that God himself grants, gives, and works that repentance in the believer as a gracious gift of the covenant of grace. The sinner repents, both sorrowing for sin and living in good works, because God grants it. Second, the necessary way means that the very experience of the covenant of God consists in the benefit of his grace called repentance. In repentance the believer has a deep and intimate experience with God. He experiences God as the one who confronts him in his sin. In his sin the hand of God is heavy on him. He experiences God as the one who arrests him in his sin with his own hand and Spirit. He experiences God as the one who instructs him about his sin and makes him sorrow over it. He experiences God as the one who calls him personally and individually out of his sin. He experiences God as the one who turns him from that sin and leads him out of that sin. He experiences God as the one who in all of that work draws near in love to a perfectly unworthy sinner, so that he experiences God as the God of all grace. He experiences his God as the one who forgives his sins, original and actual, for Christ’s sake alone. He experiences God as the one who teaches him the way of everlasting life and leads him by his Spirit in that way. He experiences God as the one who empowers him to live in that way in love toward God and love toward the neighbor and who actually works that in him so that he walks in it. In that way of repentance he draws near to God and God draws near to him.

To say that it is necessary to repent in order to have fellowship with God or as necessary for fellowship with God is, then, a corruption of the truth of repentance—both its negative side of sorrow for sin and its positive side of joy in God and good works—as the description of the covenantal life of the believer with God. Such a view places repentance outside of that fellowship as something that must be accomplished for the fellowship. Fellowship, then, is not constituted in that gracious gift of repentance, both the turning from sin and the turning to God in all good works, but fellowship is its result. One can say that we do it all by grace, but that does not change the fact that repentance is not that wherein the believer fellowships with his God, but that which he must do in order in the end to have the fellowship of his God. Fellowship with God is the end result of repentance.

That language also redefines both fellowship with God and the experience of salvation and of the covenant. The experience of salvation for the believing sinner is his repentance. In that gracious gift of repentance, he experiences deliverance from both the damning power and the polluting dominion of sin. In repentance the believer experiences God as his justifier and sanctifier. In repentance he both sorrows over sin and delights in the good. This is also how he fellowships with his God. It is the necessary way in which he fellowships with God, not that after which he has fellowship with God. The covenant of God is in the way of repentance, then, but repentance is never a condition or that because of which fellowship with God comes to the believer.

Such an understanding of repentance as constituting the fellowship of the elect sinner with God also does justice to the Reformed doctrine of the covenant that the law is the guide to the believer’s thankful life with God in the covenant. The law demands perfection. In the covenant, that law as the law of liberty cannot demand that perfection of the believer in order to live, to remain in the covenant, to stand with God, or to enter heaven. It cannot because by faith the believer is righteous in Christ, lives, and is worthy of eternal life. But the law’s demand of perfection remains.

No one may ever teach without becoming a rank antinomian that the law does not demand perfection. This is the teaching of James to the justified believer:

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11).

As James points out, if the law no longer demands perfection, God is no longer God. The issue is not so much the law, but the ONE who said in the law. Saying that the law does not demand perfection is a denial of God and opens the possibility that the sinner is saved by law. The worst form of the error that James exposes is the idea that a man can be righteous before God or obtain from God because of his works.

Because the law demands perfection and the believer’s life in the covenant is according to the law, his life in the covenant must be repentance, namely the abiding and deep sorrow over and hatred for his sins, both original and actual. Because the law demands perfection and his life in the covenant is governed by the law that demands repentance of the believer, so that he constantly seeks and finds remission for those sins in the blood of Jesus Christ, the mediator. Because the law demands perfection, the believer can only stand in that covenant and before the face of God in that covenant on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Because he is renewed and his life in the covenant is according to the law, he already has a small beginning of the new obedience according to that law and does with love and delight live according to the will of God in that law in all good works. Because the law is the guide of life in the covenant—perfection—he must constantly seek God’s grace and Holy Spirit to live that way and to be more and more conformable to God’s image in Jesus Christ, until he arrives in perfection in heaven.

It is with this life of repentance that the Catechism also ends its treatment of the law and effectively opens its section on prayer as the chief part of the thankfulness—repentance—that God requires:

Q. 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?

A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor, and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at that perfection proposed to us in a life to come.”

The purpose of God in the preaching of the law is to increase the life of repentance as the very experience of the covenant for the child of God.

Repentance is not necessary in order to have fellowship with God. Repentance is the necessary way of fellowship with God because that repentance is the experience of fellowship with God. This understanding of in the way of does justice both to the phrase and to its intended purpose both to teach the necessity of repentance—and good works—and to deny that these are ever a condition or prerequisite of the covenant, of the experience of the covenant, or of salvation. The covenant of grace is unconditional. Repentance and good works are necessary. The phrase in the way of properly explained and understood guards both of these truths.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

Because the proper answer to the question of the necessity of good works is so closely connected with the church’s confession of the truth of the believers’ gracious salvation, and because wrong answers to this question end up denying this truth, there is no room for ambiguous language in answering this question. Especially is this ambiguous language to be deplored in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress upon the people of God the necessity of doing good works. This necessity, a real and compelling necessity, must be pressed, pressed urgently and diligently, on the church as it is explained in the Reformed creeds, especially in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in which the minister has an opportunity every year to explain this to his congregation. Works are necessary because of God’s renewing work by which he intends a testimony of gratitude and praise to himself for his grace, and also for the other reasons given by the Catechism. In all of his teaching regarding this the minister makes plain that works are not necessary to obtain salvation or the experience of salvation, because God’s people receive the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). By the Spirit so received they have salvation and the experience of salvation.

This truth may not be obscured by ambiguous language. The language that works are necessary for salvation, for some benefit of salvation, for covenantal fellowship with God, for the experience of the covenant, or for eternal life is ambiguous language. To say that works are necessary in order to have salvation, in order to have some benefit of salvation, or in order to have fellowship with God is equally ambiguous and amounts to the same thing. To say that an obedient faith is necessary to have fellowship with God is also, at the very least, ambiguous because it leaves open the question of whether faith alone obtains that fellowship because of Christ, or whether faith and faith’s works obtain that fellowship, which is nothing different than what the federal vision intends to express by the term obedient faith: faith and the obedience of faith are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, so that faith and the obedience of faith obtain that fellowship.

Such language powerfully implies, if it does not explicitly teach, that works are the instrument and thus the condition of the kingdom, the covenant, the experience of the covenant, and eternal life in the covenant. Whatever is necessary for or in order to have does not belong to the end or goal to which it is necessary. If works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, they do not belong to that gift of his fellowship, but fellowship follows on and is obtained by those works.

Such language that the sinner performs works in order to have fellowship with God denies the purpose of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism teaches that we do good works, so that God is thanked and glorified by us. So that intends to express the purpose of God’s renewal and thus the purpose for which the believer performs his good works. It is a renewal in order that we are thankful and praise him. The believer also, then, performs his good works to give that God-glorifying testimony of gratitude.

The believer who performs the work in order to have a fellowship with God that he otherwise does not have without that work and which he obtains by means of that work does not perform good works in order to thank God and to praise him with that testimony of gratitude. The believer who performs good works in order to have fellowship with God, does not perform good works because he has fellowship with God, for which he is thankful and in which he lives with his God in all good works, but to attain fellowship with God, which he does not have without the works and upon which that fellowship depends. To say that good works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, then, gives to the work of the sinner the power to obtain the fellowship.

God is not glorified and thanked by a work that is done in order to have his fellowship. He hates such works because such works are a denial of the work of Christ at the cross that God worked, in order that the elect sinner may have fellowship with God and on the basis of which he does have fellowship with God.

The cross of Christ obtained the fellowship. That fellowship is realized in the gracious operation of God to justify the sinner, so that he has a right to that fellowship and actually has peace with God in his own conscience. That fellowship is also realized in the gracious operation of God to renew the sinner and to consecrate the justified sinner to God in love. That fellowship is lived in by the sinner in a life of good works as the certain effect of the gracious renewal of the sinner by the Holy Spirit. The justified sinner performs his good works to thank his God and to praise his God for his gift. The fellowship—the experience of the fellowship—is a gracious gift.

Recognizing that the believer experiences fellowship with God along the way of works is wholly different than giving to those works the power to obtain the experience of the fellowship, which is nothing different than the federal vision’s conception of an obedient faith with its language that works are necessary for or in order to have salvation, righteousness, and eternal life.

The life of good works, the good works themselves, are not necessary in order to have, but are the effects of God’s gracious work to realize his covenant with the sinner whom he chose. Works are the manifestation of what the justified believer already possesses by faith and through grace. Works are the testimony of gratitude for and the enjoyment of that gift.

The concept that an obedient faith obtains—with its language that works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God and for fellowship with God—so that faith and the obedience of faith are instruments to obtain and to maintain fellowship with God is not equivalent and may not be taught as though it were equivalent to what has become accepted language about works performed by the sinner: in the way of.

It is certainly truth and Reformed that in the covenant the justified sinner receives blessings from God in the way of works. Whenever that language is used it must be explained in such a way that makes crystal clear to every hearer that the blessing does not depend upon that act of the sinner. However important the truth is that works are the God-ordained way of fellowship in the covenant and that the sinner enjoys God and Christ in that way, however important it is that the minister urges this on the congregation; it is equally true that those works never obtain from God, and those works may never be taught in such a way that implies or teaches that they obtain something from God.

The question is always, are the works of faith necessary as instruments to obtain or as that upon which salvation, the covenant, the experience of fellowship, or some benefit of salvation depends? The answer of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that this is impossible. It is impossible because by faith alone we rely on Christ and his perfect righteousness and all his holy works as that which obtains all of salvation, gives access to God, and brings the sinner who relies on Christ by faith into blessed fellowship with God. We receive the Spirit by faith not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). The Spirit—and with him salvation, fellowship with God, and the experience of fellowship with God—is received by the hearing of faith. This faith that justifies also sanctifies, but that sanctification of the believer does not obtain with God.

A denial of the erroneous explanation of the necessity of good works in the covenant cannot be smeared with the term antinomian. The Reformed faith with its doctrine of the covenant teaches the necessity of good works. It is the believers’ part in God’s covenant. But never does the covenant, fellowship in the covenant, or the experience of that fellowship depend on the works.

If teaching that is antinomianism, the Heidelberg Catechism can be smeared with that charge when it insists that the deliverance of the sinner, which certainly includes fellowship with the living God, is without the merit of works. We are delivered from sin, both legally and really, and delivered into covenantal fellowship with God, legally and really, without the merit of works. The works do not obtain any aspect of salvation. Those works are not necessary in order to have any part of salvation. They are the fruits of God’s saving work in his people. More specifically they are the fruits of faith, fruits of election, fruits of grace. They are the inevitable and infallible fruit of God’s gracious renewal and the cross of Christ. They are the manifestations and fruits of what the believer already has—fellowship and the experience of fellowship with the living God—and not that by which he obtains from God.

Maintaining the truth regarding the necessity of the works in the covenant of grace is necessary in order that the truth of the covenant of grace as an unconditional covenant—unconditional in its establishment, maintenance, perfection, and experience—be maintained. Maintaining this truth maintains the Reformed confession of the graciousness of the sinner’s salvation.

It is not enough, however, merely to repeat ad nauseam, that the phrase in the way of is different from in order to, or for, and that it is intended to deny that some aspect of salvation and the covenant is not a condition of or a prerequisite to salvation and the covenant. It has become evident that this phrase must be more thoroughly explained. What does it mean, for instance, that repentance is not a condition of the covenant, but that the believer does have the covenant and the experience of the covenant in the way of repentance?

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In The Way of Repentance

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

The Reformed faith teaches that the sinner is saved and delivered from his misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of the sinner. The Reformed faith also insists that the same sinner who is delivered from his misery without his works—so that his salvation is not by works—must do good works.

Two things must be noted here. First, the believing sinner is saved, saved unto eternal life, without ever performing a single good work. His salvation consists in his justification in his conscience by faith alone, both the remission of his sins, original and actual, and the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to him. Second, the justified sinner is also renewed by the grace of God. It is inconceivable that one whom Christ has redeemed and delivered remains in his sins; he must be renewed. The very righteousness of Christ imputed to the redeemed sinner demands this renewal. This renewal by the grace of God is the necessity of good works. From this follow other considerations regarding the necessity of good works: a testimony of gratitude and praise to God, assurance of faith by its fruits, and to win the neighbor to Christ.

The Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good work harmonizes with the Reformed teaching of the doctrines of grace. The truth of the Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works and the doctrines of grace of which it is part must be applied to the doctrine of the covenant. The application of the doctrine that salvation is by grace alone and not by works to the doctrine of the covenant demands a simple equation in order to protect that doctrine of the covenant from heresy. That harmonization involves this simple equation: the covenant is salvation. Whatever is true of God’s gracious salvation of the sinner is true of God’s covenant. So if God in salvation only gives grace to the elect, so also in the covenant. If God in salvation says not by works, but by grace alone, so also in the covenant. Also, nothing may be taught regarding God’s work of salvation in the covenant without harmonizing that doctrine with the Reformed doctrine of salvation.

To that simple equation that the covenant is salvation must be added another: the covenant is fellowship with God. The covenant is not unto fellowship, unto salvation, or unto the experience of salvation, for that makes the covenant a means to an end. The covenant is fellowship with God. Thus the experience of the child of God in the covenant is fellowship with God. Having the covenant, he has fellowship with God. The nature of that fellowship with God is intimacy. The covenantal fellowship with God is an intimate covenantal fellowship. Having the covenant, then, the child of God also has intimacy with God. Having the covenant and covenantal fellowship with God is the experience of his salvation.

This covenant with God is an unconditional covenant. This means that fellowship and intimacy with God in the covenant are not dependent upon some work of the sinner. They are not “contingent” upon something the sinner does. That is always what a condition is. A condition is some work, or act, of the sinner upon which God, the gifts of God, or the covenant of God depends.

The orthodox doctrine of the necessity of good works harmonizes with the truth of the unconditional covenant. That orthodox explanation of the necessity of good works gives all the glory to God for the works of the sinner and properly places those works in the sinner’s salvation as the fruits of faith and not as an instrument, or a means, to obtain salvation or any benefit of the covenant. As a consequence, this explanation of the necessity of good works does not view good works as means to obtain the fellowship of God but as the way of life in which the justified and renewed sinner enjoys his life of fellowship with God.

In the way of sin there is no enjoyment of fellowship, or intimate fellowship, with God. The reason is not because by his works the believer obtains the fellowship or because those works are necessary in order to have or to lay hold on that fellowship, but because in that life of sin the believer interrupts the exercise of faith and loses the sense of God’s favor that he has by faith and the operation of the Spirit (Canons 5.5).

The fellowship is enjoyed again when God renews the believer to repentance, faith, and the favor of God in his conscience and experience based on the perfect work of Christ, and the believer again works out his salvation with fear and trembling by that faith (Canons 5.7).

The believer’s works of faith are the fruits of God’s saving work in the believer in the covenant that God establishes with him. In that life of good works the believer enjoys fellowship with God as the consequence and effect of that saving work in him, both to justify the believer and to renew him to that life of good works, that is, to work in him both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure, and as a consequence of which the believer works out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Those works are not instruments, or means, to obtain the fellowship, but they are the way along which the believer enjoys God as his God.

The believer has the covenant by faith, by faith alone. The believer has the experience of covenantal fellowship with God by faith, by faith alone. He does not have them by means of a working, obedient faith, so that faith and the works of faith obtain with God. Rather, the faith by which he has the covenant is also the faith that in the covenant works by love and is the way in which the believer enjoys God as his God.

The doctrine of the covenant has been plagued by the heresy of the conditional covenant for hundreds of years in Reformed churches. This heretical doctrine of the covenant was rejected by the Synod of Dordt in its rejection of Arminianism. The Arminians had a covenantal doctrine. The fathers of Dordt defined and rejected this doctrine when they wrote,

The Synod rejects the errors of those…who teach that the new covenant of grace, which God the Father, through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man, does not herein consist that we by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved, but in the fact that God, having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of the law, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace. (Canons 2.error 4)

Basic then to the Arminian conception of the covenant is that works are necessary to obtain the fellowship of God in the covenant of grace. Works obtain that in this life and in eternity. Works are no longer fruits of the faith that keeps in communion with Christ in all the blessings of the covenant earned by Christ, but works are instruments along with faith.

The doctrine of the covenant does not give the Reformed believer the right suddenly to become Arminian in his theology. This is what the federal vision is presently doing with the doctrine of the covenant. It is using the doctrine of the conditional covenant to overthrow the whole Reformed confession of the believer’s gracious salvation: grace to elect and reprobate, a universal atonement, works for justification, a conditional promise, an offer of grace, and the falling away of saints.

The theological instrument by which the federal vision is accomplishing this is the concept of an obedient faith. Taking the insistence of the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:6, that “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love,” the federal vision is teaching that what obtains, or avails, for salvation now and in eternity is faith and the works of faith. The believer maintains and perfects the covenant of grace by his faith and the works of faith. He has fellowship with God in the covenant now and in eternity by a working faith, so that both faith and the works of faith maintain and ultimately perfect that covenant. For the federal vision it is not faith that avails for the covenant, salvation, and eternal life—a faith that is not dead but works by love, but which avails apart from those works. But faith and the works of faith are what avails for the covenant, fellowship with God, and eternal life. The availing faith is a working faith, a sanctifying faith, an obedient faith that avails by its working sanctification and obedience, in order that the believer has God in the covenant as his God and receives the perfection of that covenant in heaven. Thus salvation—which is the covenant and the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant—is by a working, obedient faith, so that faith and the works of faith obtain for the believer.

Salvation, the experience of salvation, the covenant, the fellowship of God in the covenant, the experience of that fellowship—all of which are the same thing—are not by an obedient faith. They are by faith. Faith avails. Faith avails because faith rests and relies upon Christ crucified alone, faith keeps in communion with Christ in all his benefits. And faith avails because the righteousness of faith is the perfect righteousness of Christ that avails for eternal life. Because Christ obtained all of salvation by his death, there is nothing left for works to obtain. The faith that avails is a faith that works by love. But the working of faith by love is not that which avails or obtains. We have the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2).

This truth regarding how believers have the covenant, the fellowship of God in the covenant, and the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant may not be obscured by ambiguous language. Especially this ambiguous language may not be used in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress the necessity of good works in the covenant, so that by means of it the impression is left, if the doctrine is not explicitly taught, that works are in fact necessary for salvation.

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The first part of the Reformed faith’s answer to the question of the necessity of good works is the truth of Christ’s gracious renewal of the redeemed and justified believer. Because God renews him he must do good works. His good works do not obtain anything from God, but they are the necessary testimony of his gratitude that God requires of him and by which God is praised. Besides this and following from it there are other considerations. The Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to the question of why the redeemed and delivered believer must do works includes this: “also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.”

It is important for the right understanding of this phrase to understand the purpose of the Catechism in the Lord’s Day. The point of the Catechism is not a fully developed doctrine of assurance. The point of the Catechism is the question, why are good works necessary for the redeemed and delivered believer, in order that the preacher may urge this on the church with all diligence and that the people of God will give careful attention to doing good works?

Further, this part of the Catechism’s answer to that question must be understood in the light of the rest of the Reformed creeds, especially the Canons of Dordt, where there is a fully developed doctrine of assurance, and which doctrine cuts off certain understandings of this phrase in the Catechism. The Canons of Dordt speak of attaining the assurance of election and note that “the elect” attained this

by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God—such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungerirng and thirsting after righteousness, etc. (1.12)

The Canons here make assurance basically to consist in assurance of election, so that assurance and assurance of election for the Reformed faith are the same.

Commenting on this portion of the creed in Voice of Our Fathers, Prof. H. C. Hoeksema wrote,

Election and the assurance of election are works of God. They are gifts of his grace. The situation is not that election is the work of God, but that assurance of election is something to which man must attain. If one maintains this, he is sailing in Arminian waters. The conscious enjoyment of the blessings of salvation, including the blessing of the assurance of election, is absolutely unconditional and without any prerequisite that we must fulfill…The Canons here take up the positive manner of obtaining assurance of election. God grants assurance in a certain way.

Hoeksema noted also that assurance of election is “assurance of faith. Faith is assurance.”

This is the point of the Catechism with its phrase as well. It speaks of the way along which God grants assurance. The English translation obscures this point. The English has “assured of…his faith by the fruits thereof” (emphasis added). It appears to make works the instrument of assurance. The German rather has “aus seinen früchten,” which emphasizes not the means of assurance, but that from which assurance comes to the believer. The point is exactly the same as in the Canons, namely that the life of good works is the way along which God grants assurance. This is a totally different idea than the teaching that works are the means, or instruments, of assurance or that works attain, obtain, or merit assurance. The works of faith are not the instruments to obtain assurance, nor are they the means to have that assurance. This is impossible since faith is assurance, full assurance. Neither can those works obtain assurance or be the means in order to have assurance because assurance is a gift of God worked by his grace and Holy Spirit.

The Catechism teaches this truth about works when it calls those works not the instrument of assurance, but “the fruits thereof,” that is, the fruits of faith. This is an extremely important description of works, whereby the Reformed faith intends to deny that works obtain or are instruments of salvation alongside of or in cooperation with faith. This is not the only place the Reformed faith calls works by this name. Lord’s Day 24 says,

It is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says,

Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.

Works, good works performed by grace and the power of the Holy Ghost, are the fruits of faith. Explaining this idea that works are the fruits of faith, the Belgic Confession says in article 24,

These works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by His grace; howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good before the tree itself is good.

Fruits of faith are “of no account towards our justification.” This means that works do not obtain, nor are they instruments or means to obtain, any benefit of salvation, since they are of no account toward our justification. The righteousness of Christ alone is the ground of salvation and of every benefit. The righteousness of Christ obtained salvation and the experience of salvation by obtaining for believers the eternal Spirit by whose work believers receive every benefit of salvation in their conscience, life, and experience. They do not have the Spirit by the works of the law, but by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2). The righteousness of Christ alone makes believers worthy of eternal life and demands that they be made perfect.

Driving home this idea that works cannot obtain with God, the Belgic Confession in article 24 goes on to point out the impossibility of works performing that role in salvation:

Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable.

In order for works to be an instrument to obtain some benefit of salvation, they must be in all respects perfect and conformable to the divine law. Our good works are all filthy rags, polluted, and defiled. Works do not give access to God, fellowship with God, answers to prayer from God, or the experience of God as our God. They cannot because the works done by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit are polluted and therefore punishable. The only work by which a believer can stand before God and live with God is the perfect work of Christ imputed to the believer by faith only.

The faith that avails for salvation and saves wholly without its works is a busy little thing. In this working of faith faith is manifested. Faith’s fruits are works, genuine works of love toward God and the neighbor as described in the law of God. Thus the works of faith show, or demonstrate, faith. In them faith becomes visible. Those works, then, so far from being the ground of assurance are the means to show faith. In this they are and remain fruits and do not obtain the assurance for the believer. Rather, the assurance itself is the gift of God given along that way.

It is one thing to say that along the way of good works—in which God ordained that the believer should walk and wherein by the power of the Holy Spirit he does walk—the gift of assurance comes to him from God. It is quite another thing to say that that the believer has assurance based on his works, that by works he achieves assurance, or that God rewards the believer's works with assurance.

Herein also is an additional thought in answer to the question of the necessity of good works. Good works are necessary as a demonstration. First, they demonstrate thankfulness to God, acknowledging him in true worship as the giver of the perfect gift of salvation as well as acknowledging the greatness and graciousness of his gift. Second, good works are the demonstration of the presence of that gift in the believer who shows thanks, namely that God has redeemed and delivered him through Christ and renewed him by his Spirit, working faith and repentance in his heart.

Since the brightness of God’s face shining on him is dearer than life to the believer, he must be instructed in the way of a holy life along which that gift of God comes to him, and he is to be urgently called to walk in that way.

Failing to walk in that way, the believer grievously wounds his conscience and does not experience the favor of a reconciled God.

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The understanding that works are necessary for believers because God regenerates believers reveals the faulty logic behind the teaching that works are necessary to obtain with God some aspect of salvation. That faulty logic is that obtaining by works is the most compelling reason to do good works, that without the incentive of obtaining with God the sinner will have no real compelling incentive to do good works, and thus that the sinner will be uninterested in doing good works. In this faulty thinking the believer is considered to be one who will actually use the teaching of grace as a license to sin.

Besides the obvious criticism of this logic that every work done to earn, obtain, or have with God is a wicked work, this logic ignores the reality that by virtue of God’s renewing act the sinner becomes a new creature with a new heart, a heart that is thankful and delights to do God’s will. Those who teach that works are necessary to have something, anything, from God view believers as mercenaries who work to be paid. The Reformed faith looks at believers as regenerated creatures in whom the must of the law has actually been made the believers’ inward delight by the saving work of God to write that law upon their inward parts and to give them new hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. The thought of the believer when he is taught that his works—works done by grace and through faith—do not earn with God and are not that upon which some blessing depends is not “Thank God, I can now live as I please,” but “Thanks be to God, I do not have to earn with God! What wilt thou have me to do, Oh, Lord, my God?”

It is an insult to the believer and his new man in Christ to teach him that he can obtain with God and that he must do in order to have something from God because the blessing of God depends on his works. Indeed, in teaching the necessity of good works to the believer, the preacher must do what the Catechism does when it teaches the necessity of good works and reiterate that the believer is saved and delivered from his misery merely of grace for Christ’s sake without any merit—works—of his own. God himself has made the believer a thankful creature.

It is anathema for the believer who is renewed by Christ to attempt a transaction with God by his works.

Thankfulness, which proceeds from the regenerated heart, is another necessity of good works. The Catechism in Lord’s Day 32 says that “we [must] still do good works…so [that] we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that He may be praised by us.” The words so that speak to the purpose of God’s renewal of the sinner.

This phrase in the Catechism points out the wickedness of works that are done to have some aspect of our salvation from God: it makes impossible the purpose of gratitude and it dishonors God. It makes impossible gratitude because a work that is done to have something from God cannot be done to thank God. The man who works for eighty hours in a week does not thank his boss for the paycheck. It is owed the working man. Further, the very idea that the believer must do something to have from God, as that upon which God’s gift depends, dishonors God because it says that God did not do everything necessary for his child to have from him in Jesus Christ, and it makes of his grace a wage that is paid to the working sinner.

Over against this, the Catechism teaches that the necessity of good works is a testimony of gratitude to God. This is not independent of God’s work of renewing the sinner, but is the very purpose of God in renewing the sinner. According to the Catechism, God renews the believer so that he may testify of his gratitude. God does not renew sinners so that they can work in order to have from God and to obtain from him by means of those works. He renews sinners so that they testify of their gratitude to him. God saves and delivers the sinner wholly without the merit of his works, and then God graciously renews the sinner so that the sinner may testify of his gratitude by a life of good works. God gives redemption, deliverance, and gratitude.

Thus the professing believer who does not do good works is wholly without this testimony of gratitude. Without it he lives a wicked and ungrateful life and gives abundant evidence that he is also without regeneration, faith, and salvation. He does not lack salvation because of his failure to work, but rather his failure to work is the clear and compelling testimony that he does not have faith, righteousness, and the gift of conversion.

Such is the relation between the renewal of God and the testimony of gratitude that the sinner whom God renews will give this testimony of gratitude. Such is the relationship between the gift of renewal and the purpose of gratitude that the believer must do good works. For the sake of this testimony of gratitude, the sinner must be instructed in the way of gratitude according to the law, and this way of gratitude must be exhorted on him urgently not because he can obtain with God by means of it, but because his God requires it of him and works in him both to will and to do of his good pleasure, so that he gives that testimony.

Hypocrites must be warned that without this testimony of gratitude in a life of good works, they fail to give the one great thing that is the purpose of God in the work of redemption, justification, and sanctification.

By means of that testimony of gratitude—consisting in a life of prayer and good works—the believer praises God. The Catechism adds “and that he may be praised by us.” Just as the life of works and prayer that is performed as the basis of obtaining from God certainly dishonors and displeases God, so the life of works and prayer that consists in a testimony of gratitude to God glorifies and praises God.

Not the least part of this praise of God in such a life is the believer’s testimony that his life of good works and prayer is not in any way the basis for obtaining from God and is not performed as the ground on which the believer depends to have something from God, but to praise and thank him for the free gift of salvation, including all his life of gratitude.

Since the praise of God is the sincere desire of the regenerated heart of a believer, this necessity of good works must be taught to the believer and this calling must also be exhorted upon the believer. Because he is prone by nature to praise himself, he must be exhorted to this praise of God. The praise and worship of God is his chief calling. He does this not by self-invented worship of God or by a self-devised way of life, but in the way of obedience to the law of God and by a life of prayer to God.

Hypocrites and the impenitent must be warned that their unthankful life dishonors and displeases God.

Both of these are results of the renewing work of God as the chief explanation of the necessity of good works. That which God wills he surely performs. That which God wills is a testimony of gratitude to his glory. This God works in the believer. As a consequence the believer must also do good works.

This is the main answer of the Catechism to the question of the necessity of good works. This fact does not come out clearly in the received English translation. In that version the punctuation of the original German is missing. After that first part in the original German there is a period. What follows in the answer is introduced by the German words danach auch, which translates as after this also. So the English should read,

Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for His blessings, and that He may be praised by us. After this also…”

The point is that the first part of the Catechism’s answer must be understood and taught properly. And if that is understood and taught properly, there are additional considerations in answer to the question of the necessity of good works that are to be urged upon the churches and people of God. These additional considerations are based on and follow from the first part.

There are, then, other aspects to the Reformed answer regarding the necessity of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32.

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

At the same time the Reformed faith insists that the sinner is saved by God’s grace wholly without his own works—including especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone in which the believing sinner is justified before God in his conscience and experience by faith alone and not at all by works—it also insists that good works are necessary. It is slander to charge the defense of this position with a denial of the necessity of good works. Those who do so take their place with the Romish, Arminian, and federal vision opponents of the truth. The Reformed faith says two things: the sinner is justified by faith alone wholly apart from his works, and the works of the justified sinner are necessary. The sinner, redeemed and delivered without his works, must do good works.

The Reformed faith’s answer to the question of why the justified sinner must do good works is unique. This answer is given in plainest English in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus wrote about the pastoral purpose of this Lord’s Day and emphasized the importance of teaching this distinctly Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works: “These causes, now, must be explained and urged with great diligence, in our sermons and exhortations to the people.” The Reformed faith, denying vehemently that works obtain salvation or the experience of salvation and especially that works are part of the believer’s righteousness before God—we have the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal 3:2)—equally emphasizes the necessity of good works properly explained and urges with great diligence the doing of them.

Lord’s Day 32 reads in full:

Q. 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?

A. Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof; and that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?

A. By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolator, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

The first part of the Catechism’s answer to the question of the necessity of good works is found in this sentence: “Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image.” The necessity of good works in the justified believer is the work of Christ in that believer to renew him by the Holy Spirit after Christ’s image.

When the Lord’s Day speaks of the renewal of the sinner, it implies the original condition of his nature. In Adam all human beings are conceived and born in sin. By nature all men are incapable of performing any good and inclined to all wickedness. The sinner’s whole nature is corrupt and under the power of sin. All his faculties and powers are controlled by sin. His mind is dark, his affections are evil and corrupt, and his will is a slave to sin. In that condition the sinner by nature is one who hates God and his neighbor. Man’s thoughts and all the imaginations of his heart are only evil continually. In that condition the sinner is in bondage to sin, so that he continues in his sin, cannot will the good, and cannot perform that which is good and pleasing to God. The sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to God. The sinner does nothing that is pleasing to God, even when his works glitter and gleam in the eyes of men and appear to be more righteous than the righteousness of the righteous themselves, so that men speak highly of those works and commend them as the very essence of goodness. To God all the works of the sinner are an abomination because man is an abomination to God.

Belonging to this condition of the natural man as well is his loss, the total loss, of the image of God. The Catechism teaches this when it says that Christ renews his image in the elect sinner. Christ’s work to renew his image in the elect sinner is not a partial restoration of the image but a complete restoration of the whole image. It must be a restoration of the whole image because that is what man lost in the fall. He lost the image of God and took on the image of Satan.

Bearing the image of Satan, man is by nature a God-hater. In all the circumstances of his life as the word of God comes to him to love the Lord God, man says, “I hate him.” In man’s riches he serves himself; in his health he serves himself; in his fruitful years he serves himself; and in his sickness, poverty, and disasters he blasphemes God. That inveterate and spitting hatred of God is evident, too, when God strides through the earth, the wind as his chariot and the clouds as his garments. When he thunders with his voice and the lightning is his herald, the very first words out of man’s mouth are “Oh, my God,” and he blasphemes. Man as ruled by the principle of sin opposes the law of God. The natural man does not desire the good. Besides, he opposes the good and would destroy the good. The proof of that is the cross of Christ. God delivered the good, the lovely, the beautiful, the virtuous, the law-abiding, the gracious, and wholly desirable Jesus Christ into man’s power; and man took him, tried him, condemned him, nailed him to the tree, and blasphemed him.

Such a sinner, chosen by God in love from all eternity and appointed to salvation, Christ renews after his image. “His own image” in the Catechism refers to the image of Christ. The image in which God created man was knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. That image characterized the whole nature of man, so that he was upright and his whole nature was good. Possessing that image, man looked like God and was the son of God. The image as Adam bore it was good, but it was not the best. The best form of that image is as it is in Christ. Just one feature of Adam’s possession of the image will bring out the better form in Christ. Adam could lose the image and he did for himself and all his children. But Christ is God’s Son forever; Christ cannot lose that image. He cannot lose it any more than he can cease being the Son of God. He lifted up and glorified that image of God. That image is the same in substance as the image in Adam, but it is lifted up beyond the power of sin, death, and corruption. It is the image that will one day characterize the believer’s whole life and all his being, so that he perfectly loves the Lord his God and zealously serves him in all good works for eternity to the praise of God’s excellent name.

Here is a helpful analogy for the place of works in the sinner’s salvation. Works now have the same place as works will have in heaven. It is completely absurd to teach that in heaven by our works we will have something from God. Neither do we now earn from God, have access to God, or receive from God on the basis of our works, because of our works, or dependent on our works.

This marvelous work of renewal is accomplished by the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

First, this teaches that the work is divine, as mysterious as the Spirit himself and as irresistible as he is. The sinner—no matter how deeply mired in sin, how profoundly degraded in his vileness, and how long engrained his sin, an incorrigible and hardened old sinner—God, the God of all power and all grace, lays hold on in the depth of that sinner’s being and renews him and makes him a new creature who is totally changed in a moment, in the twinkle of an eye.

Second, this marvelous work of renewal by the Holy Ghost teaches that Christ comes very near his people, so that he enters into them, operates upon them, and dwells in them in the closest possible way: he takes his abode in them, dwells with them, and abides with them. God is not afar off but is near his people and with them always in Christ. He is the power of the sinner’s renewal, which Christ gives to his people constantly and preserves them in it.

This renewal and everything that follows from it are not the work of man, are not dependent upon man, do not wait on man, and thus are not conditioned on something man does. This renewal is a supernatural and divine work no less wonderful than the creation of the world. When God lays hold on one of his children to change him, God causes the light to stand out of the dark mind of the rebellious sinner; God softens the hard and opens the closed; he replaces ignorance with knowledge and hatred with love. Indeed, then, that renewal is more wonderful than creation because it belongs to the wonder of grace in which God not only gives life, but also gives eternal life from the dead.

This renewal constitutes the regeneration of the sinner both in the sense of the original implanting of the new life of Christ in him and in the sense of his conversion. There is only one fruit of regeneration and that is true conversion. That conversion follows necessarily on God’s act of regenerating the sinner. That conversion consists in the sinner’s sorrow over sin and his delight in God as the God of his salvation. That conversion, too, is God’s work. As a consequence of that work of God the sinner is converted, putting off the old man and putting on the new, who is created after the image of Christ in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness.

Thus it is incorrect to state that by the renewal God merely enables the sinner to do good works. Rather, by this renewal God works in his people both to will and to do of his good pleasure. He gives the renewal and all the works that follow from it.

The Catechism closely connects this renewal to Christ’s work of “having redeemed and delivered the sinner.” The redemption and deliverance of the sinner referred to by the Catechism includes both the atoning death of Christ Jesus that merited salvation and every benefit of salvation for the sinner and—we might say especially—the gracious justification of the sinner by faith without works. Ursinus said that the Catechism teaches here that “we are redeemed from sin and death, that is, from all the evils of guilt and punishment by no merit of ours, but only by the mere grace of God for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Ursinus spoke later of the “benefit of justification.” The Catechism begins its treatment of the necessity of good works by reiterating that the works of the sinner do not contribute to, merit, or obtain salvation. Those good works are not instruments of salvation; good works are not that on which salvation, any benefit of salvation, or the experience of salvation depend.

The Catechism joins those two works of Christ and so teaches the inseparable connection between them. Whom Christ redeems and justifies he also infallibly renews. Those whom he renews, he already has redeemed and justified. The one without the other cannot be conceived.

That inseparable connection can be defined more precisely. Redemption is the basis of the renewal, and the renewal is demanded by the redemption. Just as man was placed under the bondage of sin and death because he was guilty of sinning against God, so the guilt having been absolved and the sinner having been freed from that guilt, he must also be renewed.

In his redemption, Christ paid the penalty that the sins of the elect demanded and by that perfect sacrifice accomplished their deliverance. He delivered the elect by his cross from all the guilt of their sins and from all the power of the devil, sin, and the world. Thus the redemption of Christ includes the sinner’s renewal as that which was purchased by Christ. The righteousness that Christ accomplished at the cross and which is imputed to the sinner by faith alone demands that the sinner be made perfect. Having accomplished their redemption and deliverance at the cross, Christ also accomplishes in them the renewal that his redemption and deliverance of them demand. It is inconceivable that Christ would deliver a man from guilt and not set him free from sin’s dominion, or to put it another way that Christ would justify a man but not sanctify him: whom he justifies them he also glorifies.

Because Christ does that, it is necessary that we do good works. It is utterly inconceivable that Christ would do that and that we would not do good works. The work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is the necessity of good works.

Because of that work of God, we must do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, we will do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, we can do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, we want to do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, preachers must urge us to do good works with all diligence.

God took Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and as a consequence Adam was perfect and both willed and did the good. But the renewal of God by his grace is a greater work in which God raises the dead and causes them to perform that which is right and to repent, believe, live holily, and pray. To say that the justified believer need not do good works is a denial of God and his grace. It is not merely antinomianism, it is atheism.

The Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works explains also the Catechism’s further question: “Cannot they, then, be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” The question of the Catechism is not intended to teach that the works that the renewed sinner performs, especially his repentance and conversion to God, are that upon which his salvation depends. Ursinus says, “Those…who do not perform good works show that they are neither regenerated by the Spirit of God, nor redeemed by the blood of Christ.” He says later, “Those who perform evil works, and continue in their wicked and ungrateful lives, cannot be saved, inasmuch as they are destitute of true faith, and conversion.” Thus the point of the Catechism here is exactly to drive home that Reformed explanation that Christ’s work of renewing the sinner is the necessity of good works. The one who does not perform good works shows that he is not renewed, has no faith, and is devoid of the grace of God that works these in the sinner.

This also explains in part why the Reformed even bothered to teach about the necessity of good works. First, the truth about the necessity of good works confirms the true believer in the source of his holy life. That he does good works is, like his justification, wholly the work of God’s grace. Second, that truth warns hypocrites and impenitent men who make a vain show of faith that they will not be saved except they repent, believe, and are converted to God. Third, that truth also calls believers, who have yet a sinful human nature in them, back to the reality of who they are in Christ by God’s grace.

The Reformed faith also speaks of the purpose of God’s renewal of the sinner as the second part of its answer to the question of the necessity of good works.

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

 

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

It must be held firmly by every believer that his works, works of faith and done by grace, do not obtain any aspect of salvation. They do not obtain because they do not obtain the Spirit. Works are not an instrument, or a means, of salvation. Instrument and means are the same thing. Since the covenant is salvation, works are not an instrument to obtain the covenant. Since the covenant is fellowship with God, works are not the instrument to obtain, have, or receive fellowship with God. Since the experience of salvation is salvation in one’s conscience, works are not an instrument to obtain the experience. The believer experiences salvation by the Spirit of Christ. He does not have the Spirit by the works of the law but by faith only (Gal. 3:2). Works are not the decisive factor, ground, means, or cause of obtaining any aspect or benefit of salvation, certainly not salvation’s experience. Works are not that upon which the covenant and enjoyment of God in the covenant depend. Salvation, salvation in its entirety and with all its benefits, is not by works.

These are the ABCs of the Christian faith.

Salvation is not by works.

If salvation is by works, it is no more by grace.

If salvation is by grace, it is not by works.

These two—grace and works—may not be mingled into the toxic concoction of salvation by grace and works.

Satan has been busy and will continue to be busy refining his false and heretical doctrine that salvation is by works. He will not come in the same garb in which he cloaked himself before and which the church has exposed time and again in her various controversies over whether salvation is by grace or by works. He becomes increasingly subtle. He will become so subtle that if it were possible the very elect would be deceived. So the church may not expect attacks on the truth that salvation is by grace and not by works to come with words like merit, condition, and the like. These words have been exposed by the church. Indeed, the over-thirty-year-long struggle with the federal vision’s conditional theology of works, including its blatant denial that justification is by faith alone, shows the church that rank heretics who deny that salvation is by grace and teach that salvation is by works come subtly, bemoaning the use of the word merit and putting themselves out as great opponents of the evil word merit. All the while teaching exactly what the word merit in connection with the believer’s works in salvation always has taught, namely that the works of the believer have not only a place, but also the decisive place as an instrument, or a means, to obtain the believer’s salvation. Works are a condition. So the church must expect that kind of subtlety in further attacks on the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

It is also a common tactic of the theologians of works to charge the condemnation of works for righteousness—the idea that works are an instrument to obtain with God—with making works impossible, at least less desirable, at best making works a mere obligation, and ultimately unnecessary. That always was and is the tactic of Rome, and every other heretic who wants to give works the decisive place in the sinner’s salvation follows the tactic of the whorish mother of heretics. It is clever but wicked because it charges the truth with being antinomian and making men careless and profane. Their logic is simple: if you teach that works are not necessary for salvation; to have righteousness with God; or to obtain favor, life, or some other benefit from God, you remove the most compelling reason for good works, and believers will live carelessly and unconcerned for good works.

Denial of the Romish, Arminian, and federal vision teachings regarding the necessity of good works cannot be charged with being against good works, against the necessity of good works, minimizing works, making works less important in the preaching of the church, or even making works impossible. Rather, to be against those explanations and others like them regarding the necessity of good works is to be against the lie and to stand for the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. Being against those explanations regarding the necessity of good works is being against those who rob God of his glory by making works the instrument, or means, to obtain salvation or some benefit of salvation, who rob believers of assurance by making them continually ask whether they have done enough, and who at the same time allow vain and pretentious men to boast in God’s presence. Those who teach—and those who believe—that their works obtain with God will be damned for believing a lie, falling under the fierce anathema of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”

God will have no one boast in his presence.

Since those heretical explanations regarding the necessity of good works are rejected, may the Reformed believer speak of the necessity of good works? If he may speak of the necessity of good works, what is the proper Reformed explanation of that necessity of good works? More than that, if good works are of no value to add to one’s justification, to increase his righteousness with God, or to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation in any sense, then why speak of the necessity of the good works? Since we are not saved by works but by grace, are good works necessary at all? Further, since we are saved without the merit of works, why would the church teach about the necessity of works?

The Heidelberg Catechism states this problem in Lord’s Day 32, question 86: “Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?” Here the Reformed faith addresses the question of the necessity of good works head on and answers it so plainly that a child can understand. This Lord’s Day is the definitive Reformed answer to this question. This Lord’s Day will repay careful attention.

“Without any merit of ours” in the Catechism should be understood as meaning without any works of ours, whether works performed before or after believing. The salvation of the sinner is always a matter of merit; God is paid what God is owed. If the works of the sinner contribute to, are instruments for, or obtain the sinner’s salvation, no matter how little, the only place that the works of the sinner can have in that case is merit. This is true whether or not the theologians who promote that theology use the word merit or cleverly and deceptively substitute some other word for that offensive word merit. In short, if works are in some sense the instrument, or means, to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation, the only role those works can play is also in some sense to merit. Salvation is then “contingent” on what the sinner does.

Note as well that the Catechism states the problem sharply. The issue is not why the justified sinner may, should, or can do good works. The issue is why the justified sinner must do good works. When the Catechism says “must,” it asks about the necessity of good works. What is the binding necessity of good works in the life of the justified sinner, the sinner who is saved wholly apart from those works? In other words, when the Reformed faith asks about the necessity of good works in the life of the saved sinner, it asks about a real necessity.

Important in this connection is to understand exactly which works the Catechism refers to: works excluded from meriting the sinner’s salvation and works the Catechism insists the sinner must do. The Heidelberg Catechism defines good works in Lord’s Day 33:

Q. 91. But what are good works?

A. Only those that proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men.

Often those who teach wrongly about the necessity of good works—that they are an instrument, or a means, to obtain salvation or some benefit of salvation, including the experience of salvation—make themselves appear orthodox and attempt to obscure the offensive nature of their doctrine by insisting that they refer only to works the believer performs by grace, out of faith, and by the power of the Holy Ghost. This is an evasion. The issue between those who teach wrongly about the necessity of good works and those who insist that salvation is not by works is not that one side refers to works performed by grace while the other side refers to works performed solely by the strength of the sinner himself. The issue in this question of the necessity of good works is precisely the works of the believer—those genuinely good works performed by grace, which proceed from true faith and are performed according to the law of God and to the glory of God. In what sense are these good works necessary?

In order to drive home the point that works are really necessary, Lord’s Day 32 of the Catechism asks a further question:

Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?

The Catechism answers:

By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

There is no more thorough way to reinforce that the necessity in this case is a real necessity: nothing less than salvation—inheriting the kingdom of God—is the issue in the question of the necessity of good works.

Thus the difference between the one side and the other is also not that one teaches that good works are necessary and the other side teaches that good works are not necessary. Rather, the issue is that one side teaches that good works are necessary in order to have, to obtain, or as an instrument of salvation or of some aspect of salvation; while the other side teaches that good works are not an instrument at all to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation. The wrong answer to the question of the necessity of good works makes those good works necessary for salvation as instruments, or means, to obtain that salvation. The other, the distinctly Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works, while teaching a real necessity, is as different from that as the day is from the night.

To that distinctly Reformed answer I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

_______________

Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

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